The West Wing was never supposed to happen. At least, that’s how creator Aaron Sorkin tells the story.
According to Sorkin, he agreed to meet with John Wells (at the time, Executive Producer of ER) to talk about creating a television series, but found Wells intended to do more than just talk. He wanted a pitch, and so a surprised Sorkin lied and told him,
‘I’d like to write a show about senior staffers at the White House’ (Sorkin 2002, 3).
So he did, writing a pilot which NBC would then reject. Somewhat relieved, Sorkin went on to create and write the series Sports Night. But, a few years and several key staff appointments later, the network reconsidered and finally commissioned The West Wing.
The ‘Pilot’ has all the hallmarks of a great West Wing episode; witty dialogue, compelling characters, and an excellent combination of the personal and political. It also perfectly introduces us to The West Wing’s fictional universe. By way of the cryptic message ‘POTUS in a bicycle accident’ we meet White House staffers Sam, Leo, C.J., Josh, and Toby. With each introduction we learn exactly who these characters’ are, from the confrontational Toby to the workaholic Josh, each introductory scene brilliantly conveying the essence of these characters.
Sorkin holds back on the President’s introduction until the ‘Pilot’s’ final act, his memorable arrival instrumental in wrapping up the A- story and providing the B- story with some closure. As President Josiah ‘Jed’ Bartlet, Martin Sheen projects the persona of a man of integrity and humour. Yet there’s another side to the character, tougher, and unafraid to speak his mind. His speech towards the end of the ‘Pilot’ will leave you as impressed as his own staff as they exit the Oval Office.
No moment in the ‘Pilot’ is wasted, each scene neatly dovetailing into the next and smoothly moving the story along. With Sorkin’s fast-paced script to contend with, Executive Producer Tommy Schlamme was brought in as principal director. Sorkin credits Schlamme with creating the visual style of the show (8), after he employed the ‘walk and talk’ technique in the ‘Pilot’, a technique The West Wing would become known for. The ‘walk and talk’ consisted of long continuous shots, whereby the camera tracked a character walking through the busy White House offices, conversing with several other character’s who would enter and exit the frame along the way (Elber 2003). This gave the ‘Pilot’ a unique energy, conveying a sense of the frenetic environment the character’s operated within.
Sorkin organically incorporated exposition into the the characters’ conversations, an integral part of the progression of the ‘Pilot’. In one instance he even manages to, essentially, sum up the entire episode in a humorous outburst by the character Sam. In an attempt to win Leo’s favour Sam tries to discover which of the school children touring the White House is Leo’s daughter so he can impress her, unaware she’s actually the school teacher Mallory O’Brian .
‘Ms. O’Brian, I understand your feelings, but please believe me when I tell you that I’m a nice guy having a bad day. I just found out the Times is publishing a poll that says a considerable portion of Americans feel that the White House has lost energy and focus. A perception that’s not likely to be altered by the video footage of the President riding his bicycle into a tree. As we speak, the Coast Guard are fishing Cubans out of the Atlantic Ocean while the Governor of Florida wants to blockade the Port of Miami. A good friend of mine is about to get fired for going on television and making sense, and it turns out that I accidentally slept with a prostitute last night. Now would you please, in the name of compassion, tell me which one of those kids is my boss’s daughter’ (Sorkin, 64).
Her answer, ‘that would be me‘, provides act three with a brilliant ending.
The West Wing ran for seven seasons, four with Sorkin as the Showrunner. During its run it dealt with a wide spectrum of issues and events, from assassination attempts, to the campaign trail, and information leaks, all with varying degrees of success. Despite the series’ end in 2006, The West Wing continues to remain relevant to today’s political climate. It’s ability to combine personal dramas with political ones, with it’s intelligent banter and snappy dialogue, were most evident in the Sorkin years and none more so than the ‘Pilot’.
The ‘Pilot’ serves as both an excellent episode of drama and as an introduction to the engrossing series that was to follow. Not bad for a show that was never supposed to happen.
Elber, Lynn. 2003. ‘The West Wing’ creator leaving series, Aaron Sorkin,: ; executive producer both moving on.’ Charleston Daily Mail. Accessed March 15, 2012. docview/331926263.
Sorkin, Aaron. 2002. The West Wing Script Book. 1st ed. New York: Newmarket Press.